Music You Must Hear Before Your Visit To South Africa
Africa’s most southerly country is one of the continent’s musical powerhouses. While a varied array of traditional styles reflect South Africa’s rich cultural diversity, the country is also the origin of the infectious guitar-led mbaqanga ‘jive’, which reached a worldwide audience with a 1985 compilation called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and a variety of modern dance genres including kwaito, Shangaan Electro, and amapiano. It wouldn’t be difficult to dedicate an entire book to picking hundreds of must-hear tracks from South Africa, but here we present a subjective and eclectic taster of 16 tracks to give listen to before you visit South Africa.
Brenda Fassie – Sum’bulala (1998)
The most popular South African singer of her generation, Fassie was only 18 when her group Brenda and The Big Dudes hit the big time with the bestselling 1983 single Weekend Special. Nicknamed MaBrrr by her fans, the ‘Madonna of The Townships’ was an outspoken opponent of apartheid whose 1990 single Black President, about Nelson Mandela, was recorded prior to its subject’s release from 27 years of imprisonment. Despite her popularity and an array of awards, Fassie led a troubled, drug-addled private life and died in 2004 as a result of cocaine abuse. Sum’bulala, an isiZulu phrase meaning “Don’t Kill Them” is a traditionally-influenced late-career highlight, with sparse instrumentation and gorgeous male harmonies, taken from her bestselling 1998 album Memeza.
Kanyi Mavi – Ingoma (2011)
Sung in isiXhosa by an emcee from Cape Town’s Gugulethu township, this energized track addresses gender-based violence, which is so prevalent in South Africa it has been described as a hidden pandemic. The video to Ingoma is every bit as confrontational as Kanyi’s powerful, spitting delivery.
Dark City Sisters – Langa More (1964)
Led by Joyce Mogatusi for more than 50 years, the Dark City Sisters came together in 1958 in Alexandria, a Johannesburg township then nicknamed Dark City due to the lack of electrical lighting. The briefest of listens to their 1964 single Langa More, with its honeyed harmonies, shuffling beat, and wonderfully clean guitar and drum sound reveal all the ingredients that made them such a popular group throughout the 1960s.
Master KG – Jerusalema [Feat. Nomcebo] (2020)
If any single piece of music is associated with the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown, it is this masterful blend of gospel and house, which won the Song of the Year award at the December 2020 edition of the USA’s African Entertainment Awards. Featuring Master KG’s infectious beat offset by Nomcebo’s soulful vocals (which celebrate the significance of Jerusalem as the spiritual home to a diversity of faiths), the track went viral in mid-2020, when the #JerusalemaChallenge was the soundtracked unnumerable amateur dance videos from countries as diverse as the USA, Germany, Sri Lanka, and Israel.
Tiyiselani Vomaseve – Na Xaniseka (2010)
Characterized by haunting vocals and insanely fast beats, Shangaan Electro is a futuristic reinvention of traditional Tsonga music that emerged in South Africa’s northerly Limpopo province in the late 2000s and gained international recognition with the release of the compilation Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa in 2010. Na Xaniseka (I’m Suffering), one of three tracks on the album performed by a pair of sisters called Tiyiselani Vomaseve, is a fine example of the genre, with a marimbas-on-steroids rhythm that leaves plenty of space to showcase the sisters’ eerily androgynous harmonies. Watch those dancers!
Abagqomi – Bakhuzeni (circa 1960)
I know almost nothing about this track. It would have been recorded by the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for broadcast on one of the racially-slanted radio stations that operated under apartheid. The musicians were paid next to nothing for their efforts, details of the sessions went undocumented, and most of the tracks languished in obscurity for decades before 2000, when a staggering genre-spanning array of vintage SABC was anthologized on a set of 10 themed double CDs entitled African Renaissance Vol 1-10. Whoever the performers were, Bakhuzeni’s complex guitar and accordion riff, overlaid with gruff sing-speak isiZulu harmonies, exudes vitality and makes for an utterly compelling listen.
Lucky Dube – Prisoner (1989)
Born in 1964, the same year as Branda Fassie, Lucky Dube is Africa’s best-known reggae artist, and a household name in countries such as Ghana and Kenya. Prisoner, a searing indictment of institutionalized racism, was released at the height of the apartheid regime and remains probably his best-known song. Tragically, Dube was murdered in a hijacking in Johannesburg in 2007, a senseless killing that sent shockwaves all around Africa.
Kaygee Daking X Bizizi – Kokota Piano (2020)
One of the most exciting musical styles to emerge from South Africa in recent years is amapiano, which – contrary to its isiZulu name meaning ‘pianos’ – is a hypnotically danceable hybrid of bass-heavy house and ambient lounge electronica. A male and female duo, Kaygee DaKing and Bizizi are one of the leading proponents of amapiano, a genre that has gained rapid international traction over the last couple of years; Kokota Piano was their breakout hit in 2020.
Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) – Yinde (2106)
Inventive vocal harmonies remain a feature of much traditionally-influenced South African music. This performance by BCUC, a Soweto-based seven-piece that incorporates a variety of traditional and modern styles into its fusion sound, is no exception. Recorded live in France with no overdubs, the bass guitar is the closest thing to a lead instrument, and the heavily percussive backing allows plenty of breathing space for the contrasting vocal stylings of male singers Jovi and Hloni (harsh, angry) and the only female member Kgomotso (gentler but equally impassioned). Stunning!
Skip & Die – Lihlwempu Lomlungu – Skip & Die (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7mKSK9TTjk
The brainchild of the South African-born, Amsterdam-based globetrotter Cata. Pirata, Skip & Die is an eclectic fusion band whose African roots are perhaps most overt on the genre-hopping track Lihlwempu Lomlungu, a highlight of their debut album Riots in the Jungle.
Nontwintwi – Inkulu Into Ezakwenzeka (1957)
Short, sweet, and beautiful, this snippet was recorded in a traditional Xhosa village in 1957 in what is now part of the Eastern Cape. The 55-year-old singer, whose surname went undocumented, was accompanying herself with a traditional uhadi gourd bow, striking the single string with a light stick and using the finger of her other hand to change the note – the very same instrument seen on the album cover photograph in the accompanying clip.
Sho Madjozi – Huku (2018)
Included in a “30 Under 30” list compiled by Forbes Africa in 2019, Sho Madjozi is a poet and rapper whose progressive pan-African style reflects a cosmopolitan upbringing that included stints in the USA, Tanzania, and Senegal. Huku, from Madjozi’s award-winning debut album Limpopo Champions League, typifies this approach with its propulsive Shangaan Electro beat, lyrics in the East African lingua franca KiSwahili, and a video showing off Malian-influenced braids which reflect, in Madjozi’s words, ‘what a globalized young African would be if she was not interrupted by the horror of colonialism and apartheid’.
Mahotella Queens – Umculo Kawupheli (1973)
One of South Africa’s most popular ever vocal harmony groups, Mahotella Queens produced a succession of lively hit singles in the mbaqanga style in the 1960s and 1970s. Their 1973 track Umculo Kawupheli (literally ‘Our Music Will Never End’) stands out for two reasons. The first is that, in 1981, the melody, rhythm, and phrasing would be plagiarized by Malcolm McClaren as the uncredited basis of the Bow Wow Wow track See Jungle! Second, and more importantly, the song is accompanied by a self-made video of the Queens singing, their backing musicians playing, and a lot of cigarettes being smoked – a rare and evocative time capsule.
Thandiswa Mazwai – Thongo Lam (2009)
Best known as the singer from the award-winning kwaito group Bongo Maffin, Thandiswa Mazwai is one of South Africa’s most exciting singers. Thango Lam, the opening track of her bestselling second solo album Iyeza, combines traditional harmonies and modern instrumentation to a dramatic slow-burn effect.
Via Afrika – Hey Boy (1983)
A product of Johannesburg’s underground post-punk explosion in the early 1980s, this unique fusion of African rhythms and arty synth pop was groundbreaking on its release and now feels prophetic of various post-millennial Afro-electronica genres. Lead singer René Veldsmen later described the group as “a glamorous protest against homophobia, constraints on freedom of expression, and the rules in place during the apartheid years”. Years after they disbanded, Via Afrika was presented with a United Nations award by Beyers Naude.
Sun-El Musician Feat. Simmy – Higher (2021)
A hypnotic example of chilled contemporary South African electronica, Higher was the lead single from the Zulu DJ Sun-El Musician’s aptly named 2021 album African Electronic Dance Music.